Watching the Jewish Community Watch and Its ‘Wall of Shame’
A young man’s brazen blog about alleged child sex-abusers in the Chabad community divides Crown Heights
In June 2011, shortly after Moshe Keller, a rabbi who ran an organization for wayward Chabad youth, was charged with molesting a local teenaged boy, an anonymous blog began to circulate in Crown Heights, the heart of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. In the blog’s initial post, its author, who first called the site Crown Heights Watch, later changing the name to Jewish Community Watch (JCW), claimed that Keller had been “sexually abusing children since his days in Israel, two decades ago.”
“He believes he can hide behind being a rabbi, since the Rabbonim (rabbis) of the Jewish communities have a track record of hiding such matters,” the post continued.
At first, only Keller’s photo was posted, along with a testimonial from an alleged victim and a call for additional victims to report abuse to the police. A month later, two more men, Yaacov Weiss, who pleaded guilty to child-endangerment charges in 2010, and a never-charged cantor were added to the blog’s “Wall of Shame.” People began to whisper, speculating about who could be behind the blog. The blogger, fearful of retribution, remained anonymous until the summer of 2012, when he revealed himself to be 23-year-old Meyer Seewald, a long-haired local with pale blue eyes, a stubborn jaw, and a dark tan.
Now 24, Seewald claims to have a database containing over 225 suspected sex offenders and a confidential eight-member advisory “board” made up of mental-health professionals, legal experts, and rabbis who, according to Seewald, refuse to acknowledge their roles publicly for fear of backlash. JCW’s Wall of Shame features 36 accused abusers, 21 of them arrested, according to the site, each added when the “board” has determined there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Like other Jewish blogs dedicated to sex-abuse awareness, such as Mark Appell’s Voice of Justice or Vicky Pollin’s The Awareness Center, JCW aggregates related news and offers referrals for legal advice or counseling services, but Seewald takes the job a step further. When a victim who confides in Seewald is unwilling—or unable due to the statute of limitations—to press charges, Seewald conducts his own investigation, selectively exposing alleged abusers on his Wall of Shame.
According to Chaim Levin, 24, a Crown Heights blogger and activist who won $3.5 million judgment against his cousin on June 12, claiming years of childhood sex abuse, gaining Seewald as an ally was a relief. “The day I got a call from Seewald asking me about my story was the first time I believed that our community was actually making some progress in combating abuse,” said Levin. “I had been talking about what happened to me to anyone who would listen since I was 14, but everyone told me to keep it to myself and move on.”
Seewald’s confrontational style is evident in his latest project, Project E.M.E.S., an acronym for Educating Mosdos (institutions) on Eradicating Sexual abuse, launched this month, which aims to prevent sex abuse in religious summer camps. The project’s accompanying video, titled “A Friendly Message to Camp Counselors,” warns them: “I don’t care who you are, what family you come from. If you touch a child, we will find out about it.”
But is Seewald—whose apparent irreverence for the hierarchies of Jewish institutions sets him apart from other crusaders in the field—helping or doing more harm than good? Seewald said he hopes the blog’s Wall of Shame will warn parents and instill fear in local predators, preventing the victimization of more children. “The only thing molesters are afraid of is being exposed and caught. They are more afraid of the Wall of Shame, than going to jail,” he told me. But the Wall of Shame has also proved to be deeply problematic; used irresponsibly, it can easily undermine the organization’s objectives and destroy an innocent person’s life. According to Ben Hirsch, co-founder of Survivors for Justice, an organization that advocates and educates on issues of child safety, Seewald is on a dangerous track. “Setting up a separate registry [from the law enforcement agencies] can be perceived as condoning a separate justice system,” he told me, “Which, in a way, perpetuates the message of the rabbis that we can deal with this issue in-house. The message must instead be that the only way to deal with child sex abuse is to report it directly to the police, without any prior consultation with a rabbi or other communal figure.”
Seewald was 17 when his friend Benny Keller died in his arms in the summer of 2006. According to Keller’s close friends, a fistfight several days prior to their camping trip in the Catskill mountains had caused him to hemorrhage in his sleep. At the funeral, Benny’s father spoke. Moved by the crowd of Chabad youngsters in attendance, Moshe Keller wept and vowed to start an organization in his son’s name (called Gesher Ben Tzion) to support “at-risk” teens. When Seewald heard about Rabbi Keller’s arrest five years later, he began question anyone who had spent time at Keller’s home, and two of his friends told him they had been violated by Keller.
“I came home in shock, like, this person abused people,” said Seewald. “I remember telling my siblings, my mom, my brothers, and no one understood. They just saw the pain in my face.”
On his own, Seewald launched an investigation, tracking every move Keller made and every person who had come in contact with him in 20 years. One clue led to another, and Seewald said he learned that Keller had been accused of child sex abuse in Israel and that Crown Heights rabbis had helped him put the charges behind him.
One of Keller’s alleged victims, who called me from London, said he emailed Rabbi Shea Hecht, who represents the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, in 2007, following a series of sex-abuse seminars moderated by the rabbi, but Hecht, concerned for Keller’s family, did not suggest going to the police.
“[Hecht] was the go-to guy [for sex abuse]; if you couldn’t trust him to take care of things properly, there was no one else.” said the victim, now 25, who asked not to be named.
In fact, no charges were brought against Keller until 2011, when a third victim, Mordechai Feinstein, filed a complaint against him, and in May 2012, Keller would be sentenced to three years of probation for endangering the welfare of a child. When Seewald posted Keller’s picture on his blog along with a call for victims to come forward, he thought he had done his part to end decades of cover-up.
Three months passed and Seewald noticed an email account associated with the blog. When he figured out how to access it, he told me he found hundreds of emails from people who had been affected by sex abuse and he realized that he had no choice but to keep helping victims find justice.
“It really, really got to me. None of these people had spoken to anyone about it. No one was doing anything,” Seewald said.
Agents of Influence counsels the young emir of the wealthy Arab nation who must decide how to use his powerful TV network